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Thursday, September 18, 2003

WAR OF THE WORDS

by Dan Stern
There was a time when you thought you might have to write this story. You knew if the mood of the day had become infected with the mistakes of the past that the moment would come and you would have no choice. You are now witnessing a resurgence in the kind of anti-Semitic acts and language that preceded the rise of the Third Reich and that you thought had been buried with its fall. Jewish cemeteries are being desecrated. Synagogues are being torched. Jewish students are being bullied out of their European classrooms with little or no protection from the schools. Hate crimes targeting Jews in France generate no response from the government. International politicians are growing braver in their bigoted remarks. Fanatical Muslim terrorists are gaining legitimacy through cease-fire negotiations and recognition from Western countries as justifiable entities. And you see that in the slightest of semantic shifts, this mood has assumed an anti-Israel veil. And so you know—that moment to tell your story has come sooner than you imagined. You will defy the political correctness and cultural sensitivity that have belied the obvious and will clear the confusion clouding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the newest manifestation of history's favorite pastime.

It is the early fall of 2002, months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, three days after the first anniversary of September 11, and two years into the new Palestinian intifada against Israel. You enter the congested auditorium and sit toward the far back where the only available seats remain and wait for her to appear onstage, the guest speaker. After some time, the sound of hands meeting hands and shrieks of devotion erupt throughout the room. You get up on your toes and squint and barely make out the features of the woman you’ve seen on the news countless times in the past. She waves appreciatively and takes a seat. So there she is: Hanan Ashwari, former spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Her invitation to speak at the University of Colorado at Boulder has been met with much criticism, notably by the state governor and Congressional leaders. Her supporters call her a moderate voice of peace in the region, one who has even visited the White House. Her detractors call her an apologist for terrorism who does with words what Hamas does with explosives.

You are a strong proponent of Israel, the lone democracy in the Middle East. You view the Arabs in general, and the Palestinians in particular, as the perpetrators of their own wounds, unable to see that the enemy is within. You are also a secular Jew and fourth-generation New Yorker who was living in Manhattan on Sept 11, 2001, and so have come here tonight with a certain emotional and cultural context.

Still, you are open-minded and are aware that you’re a product of your upbringing and your surrounding society and thus experience the world as a 21st century American. You welcome a sign of hope from the Arab side of the Middle East conflict and embrace any possibility of a peaceful resolution. And so you sit and you listen.

The first thing you notice when Ashwari addresses the crowd is how elegantly she speaks. There is a hint of regal grace in her voice, with a bit of soothing grandmotherliness gently blended in. Her vocabulary is sharp, her cadence almost poetic. Witty and knowledgeable, she comes off quite charmingly. The faces around you respond to her, ready to receive whatever ideas she may offer.

The “occupation"—she cuts right to it. She tells of the poverty, the despair, the whole wretched affair. She tells of her years living under military watch, the humiliation, the loss of dignity, the abuses, the rich Palestinian culture being swept carelessly, deliberately, into the sea.

Occupation. The word repeats itself over and over until all others fade away and you are left with that simple mantra Ashwari has provided. Occupation. Occupation. Occupation.

The transfixed audience members sit on their fury, breaking into applause whenever they find the chance to show their support for the Palestinian cause. It’s the least they can do to express their outrage with Israel.

“We are the first occupied people to be held responsible for the security of its occupiers,” she says. An explosion of cheers! What a line. You yourself are gripped by its lyrical and clever appeal.

Ashwari begins to recount more stories of victimization at the hands of Israeli soldiers, of children growing up in pitiful conditions, and her soft, rhythmic voice lulls you deeper into her world. You might side with the Israelis but those tales of suffering don’t fall short of touching you.

Once she has her grip wrapped firmly around your heart, she moves on to the “myth of the generous offer at Camp David.” Nothing was put down in writing, she says. Nothing. Her convincing tone exudes truth and the audience responds accordingly. But you’ve heard that Arafat was in fact handed what he had been publicly asking for all along and yet he turned it down. He was afraid, you've heard, that if he went back to his people having accepted it that his body would've been dragged through the dirty streets by the thugs who want nothing less than all of Israel. And you’ve heard that even Clinton has said Arafat missed his opportunity. But you weren't there, and competing accounts exist, and despite what seems most likely, you can't know for sure. Regardless, this is a minor detail in a sweeping conflict and so you continue to listen to Ashwari for signs of reason amidst the images of young stone-throwers and throngs of armed men eerily hooded in black masks crowding the Palestinian streets. But Ashwari, sensing she has won over the audience, decides to suddenly drop any illusion of temperance and goes in for the kill.

Listen. Here is what she tells you:

“Israel wants a unilateral war and annexation, not peace.”

“Israelis believe Palestinians are genetically inferior.”

“Israelis started the argument that Palestinians want to destroy Israel.”

“Israel supported the oppression of human rights in Palestine.”

“There is a democratic recession in the Arab world because of the war on terrorism.”

“Israel will use the US attack on Iraq to get rid of as many Palestinians as possible.”
This rapid-fire barrage of words improbably strung together, and the sympathetic cries of support from this American audience, cognitively mutes you. It's all so obviously untrue. Where do you even begin to address such claims? The only thing that comes to mind are the words of one of the modern era's most effective leaders: "The greater the lie, the greater the chance it will be believed." Adolph Hitler wrote this before his sudden rise to power when few were paying attention.

We don’t need America, Ashwari continues, to tell us how to build a democracy. “We know how.” “Stop getting in our way.” “Get the Israeli Army off our backs and we will hold elections.” Now you’re thoroughly baffled. Where in the Muslim world is there a democratic system? And how is Israel, birthed in 1948, and the United States, only a couple centuries old, retroactively responsible for the oppression and absence of human freedoms that have plagued Arabs for 500 years?

These outright lies strike less of revisionist history than of a history in a parallel universe. And in this universe it is the Jews who kill in the name of their Lord, for Ashwari says the Israelis need to “stop bringing God into the conflict.” And now you don't know whether to laugh or cry, because you’ve never, not once, heard of a Palestinian suicide bomber who blew himself and others up without evoking the name of Allah. Those were Arabs, not Jews, that flew planes into our buildings, all eagerly awaiting those 70 black-eyed virgins promised to them in heaven. And it was the Palestinians that celebrated these religious heroes in the streets when word of the burning flesh from our singed towers reached their villages. But you see the nods of the audience agreeing that, yes, the Israelis need to leave God out of this already.

Ashwari's universe also records her Palestine as a hotbed of tolerance, overflowing with equality—a place seemingly perfect prior to Israeli intervention. Muslims accept all religions, you are told, and respect all cultures. You try to see it but all that comes is the thought of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem during World War II doing all he could to support and further Hitler's "Final Solution," and you also think of the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, being used as a trash dump under Arab rule. Even in current times, you see the common practice of Palestinians destroying Jewish holy sites in their region.

You tell yourself that, fine, yes, the Israelis need to stop building settlements in Palestinian territory. That you will concede. The construction of new homes certainly is a policy you don't support. But it occurs to you that if Palestinians are so accepting, almost to a flaw as Ashwari would have you believe, then why can't Jews live on Arab soil? Why can't they reside there just as more than a million Arabs, including Palestinians, do in Israel as full, equal citizens? These are not Arabs under so-called occupied territory but rather Israeli Arabs who are bestowed with all the freedoms of Israeli Jews and who compose nearly one-fifth of Israel's population. It would be as if Italians declared that no French could live in their country or vice versa. Such discrimination would be obvious, so why is this case any less clear? Where is the tolerance that Ashwari's people simply cannot contain? Nowhere in the Palestinian or pan-Arab world is there a single positive recognition of anything Jewish or Israeli. Nowhere. There is only anachronistic stereotyping and crude hatred whose longevity defies their absurdity. How strange, this people supposedly interested in peace who lack any hint of acceptance for their neighbors.

That's why mentions of settlements and occupation are so useful. All good magicians know to use distractions to avert attention from the real matter at hand, in this case the cultural loathing of Jewish, and consequently Israeli, existence. After all, you know that when Hamas and Arafat's terroristic Fatah faction, and the vast majority of Palestinians who support their policy of eviscerating civilian body parts, refer to occupation, they are referring to all of Israel, not merely the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That is why not a single Palestinian school book or governmental agency indicates the word Israel anywhere on their maps. That is why the Palestine Liberation Organization was formed in 1964, three years before the so-called occupation. What occupied land was Arafat's terrorist organization liberating then?

There is, however, a strange respectability to Hamas's medieval mentality. Never have they tried to disguise their motives, unlike some spokespersons. They hate Jews, want all of Israel to themselves, plan to execute this agenda through indoctrination of their youth, and that's precisely what they say and that's precisely what they do. You'll take a Hamas thug over a Hanan Ashwari any day.

You came here looking for Ashwari to, among other things, issue an outright condemnation of Hamas—its philosophy and practices. But she seems to maintain the same attitude as the French, that Hamas remains a necessary player in the peace process, which, no matter how you view the Israeli actions in the disputed territory, can mean only one thing. The closest she gets to conceding it may be wrong for Palestinians to dress their youth up in bombs and shrapnel is the lazy delivery of a line that half drowns in the wake of a preceding applause: “Of course we did use negative means to get attention, but now we’re trying.” You look down at the flyer in your hand that announces Ms. Ashwari as the moderate voice of peace, and you furrow your brow and kind of shake your head. You think of the small children in your family, nieces, nephews, all talking about trains and dolls and singing to Sesame Street, and you are haunted by endless video footage of Palestinian boys and girls the same age, cloaked in suicide mission vests and armed with grenades and guns, yearning to become martyrs the way American kids hope to become firemen, screeching, "Kill the Jews! Kill the Jews!" It doesn't quite seem real.

You feel completely disconnected from Ashwari now. The hope is gone, and that is the most disturbing part of all—that you know so many view her philosophy as a ray of light and yet you see her, at best, as a fine teller of tall tales. If she is hope, where does that leave Israel?

Having lost the will to listen anymore, your mind drifts to the irony hidden within all this. Had the Nazis not tried to eradicate any trace of Jewish blood from the earth, had historic anti-Semitism encompassing the Arab, European, and Russian people not filled the Jews with such well-grounded fear, there would never have been any need for the modern state of Israel. Jews would not have been compelled to cling to one another for survival. The Arabs, the world, created the very problem (Israel) that they now struggle to control and seemingly destroy.

But irony is merely entertainment for those few lonely free thinkers of the earth and plays no role in politics. So you return to the beating of Ashwari’s packaged noise and discover she is relating Israel’s plans to build a wall sectioning off Gaza and the West Bank to “Apartheid.” After all, if the Israelis want to protect themselves from unrelenting terrorists, they are the bad guys. But logic matters little. It’s the buzzwords that stick with people. They might walk away retaining nothing of substance but they’ll be equipped with those verbal untouchables: “occupation” and “Apartheid.”

Ashwari knows her audience. It seems she knows well America's weakness, especially on college campuses: the blind affection for the underdog. You watch her strategy unfold so effortlessly, so invisibly. This is what she plays on: the trend to view the stronger side as morally wrong. Bottom line, if one's country has might, it must be guilty of something heinous. And you figure she knows the other element to prey on because she does it so well, the element a friend recently pointed out to you: Americans have an image of injustice, an existing paradigm of a victimized people. This image includes persons with darker skin who are poor, uneducated, and have adopted desperate measures. And this is exactly what is found in the Palestinians. It's become the norm to consider struggle and despair the result of outside forces, never internal defects, for declaring an intrinsic weakness would imply a racist view. And yet you know that this same poor, uneducated, desperate society dwelled in that arid region preaching hatred of everything non-Islamic for so long that Mark Twain, in his visit to the land in 1867, wrote, "Rags, wretchedness, poverty and dirt, those signs and symbols that indicate the presence of Moslem rule more surely than the crescent-flag itself, abound. Jerusalem is mournful, and dreary, and lifeless. I would not desire to live here." This, a century to the year before Israel "occupied" the Palestinian territories after an Arab invasion. And yet here is Ashwari, demanding that the Israelis stifled the once-flourishing Palestinian culture, a culture which incidentally was "occupied" by Egypt and Jordan prior to 1967 but which never, not once, expressed interest in being its own, distinct state.

Within your disheartened mindset something begins to make itself known. It is your post-modern relativist education tugging away, reminding you that situations are not judged in terms of absolute truth but rather different perspectives, none more true than the rest. You still want to believe this all boils down to Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza, because that could be resolved. This whisper from within brings you back, and just in time, for Ashwari honorably tells the crowd that, no, she will not compare mortality figures between Israelis and Palestinians. A death, she says, is a death. One death is a massacre. The crowd applauds. You applaud. Before the last pair of hands has clapped, Ashwari proceeds to compare the disparity in numbers. Jenin soon makes its anticipated appearance. A massacre. An outrage. War crimes. And yet the paradox: Why would the Israelis not just attack from the air? Why risk troops going carefully door to door knowing armed terrorists were awaiting them if they just wanted a massacre? And what of the gross exaggeration of hundreds, even thousands, of deaths when in fact both sides eventually concurred it was only a few dozen, most of whom were armed terrorists? Here Ashwari returns to her silence on figures.

You genuinely wonder whether Palestinian families fear the Israelis. After all, Israel has the Bomb. Many of them. Enough, in fact, to wipe out pretty much every last one of the 200 million Arab Muslims that engulf the not quite 6 million Jews in Israel. Do they sit in their homes at night terrified of the Israeli Army's capability like Israelis would if they knew Hamas had acquired nuclear weapons? You suspect they don't, because they know the Achilles' heel of the Jewish state rests in its compassion and value for human life. They know in their hearts that this whole mess would end overnight (overnight!) if the Palestinians embraced Israel as a legitimate country.

Ashwari even nags about how no one talks about Israel’s nuclear power, only Iraq’s alleged intentions, as if the two are in the same boat, let alone same ocean. Here is Saddam, a man who poisoned his own people, killed his own family members, engaged arbitrarily in mass murder, fostered an environment of oppression, and has threatened every country in the region. And there is Israel, a country that fresh out of the Holocaust not only tried a Nazi executioner in a court of law but deliberated painstakingly over whether to sentence him to death (Adolph Eichmann was ultimately Israel's first and only execution). Israel, the land that only a few decades back was presided over by a female prime minister who said, “I can forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but I can’t forgive them for making us kill theirs.” You can’t recall ever hearing such tenderness directed at another ethnic or religious group emerge from the lips of a Palestinian leader. Never. Not once. You have, however, seen mobs of Palestinians dragging bloodied carcasses through streets ("informers" who collude with Israelis) and throwing Israeli soldiers out windows to be pummeled to death by the civilian masses. The idea that no one gets arrested for doing this is so disturbing, though not nearly as disturbing as the fact that it doesn't even seem to occur to most people that the perpetrators should be lawfully apprehended for these gruesome acts. It's just the way things go in the Palestinian world, a world so eager to gain autonomy and control its own military right beside Israel. There seems to be no civilized law, certainly little enforcement if there is. Perhaps when there is a democracy, you imagine, such developments as freedom of speech and press, economic opportunities, women's rights, and civil liberties will ensure that bodies aren't beaten in public in front of cheering throngs. Until that day, the only Palestinians that will get to enjoy those rights are those living in Israel proper. You chuckle sadly to yourself as Ashwari rants about democracy among the Palestinians, for there is only one place on earth where Palestinians hold office in a truly democratic system: the Israeli parliament.

But these are mere details that fail to address the searing religious and cultural hatred for a nation of infidels right in the Palestinians' own backyard. And despite your moral relativistic education, you can't help but sense deeply that there is a right and a wrong side here, a good and an evil. And despite your respect for the teachings of Gandhi and King, you know with utter certainty that a laying down of arms by the Israelis would be tantamount to inviting one big suicide bomber to walk right in uncontested. Having heard the moderate voice of the Palestinians you are now convinced, with the greatest disappointment, that the struggle will endure long into the future until freedom of thought and an open exchange of ideas flood the Arab world and drown the theocratic dogma.

What will add to your frustration, to your fears, is that the mainstream media will report this event as if it were a traditional speech, in which valid positions were defended, righteous concerns voiced. It will note the speech sparked controversy, but not quite say why. It certainly won't mention Ashwari's remark regarding accusations of "genetic inferiority" or her ludicrous charge that Americans and Israelis are responsible for the lack of an Arab democratic movement. This would call her other claims into question immediately, and the media can't seem to bring itself to do that. This is the same media that is unable to define what "occupation" means according to common Palestinian usage and which deems the current conflict a "cycle of violence" when in fact every single Israeli strike is aimed at rooting out the terrorists responsible for blowing up people and places in Israel. This is the same media that doesn't even call them terrorists, that refers to the human bombs that gravitate toward young women and children (so as to wipe out the young generation and the ability to bear more children) as "militants," which certainly doesn't carry the same connotation. A militant fights for a seemingly noble cause, the unreported cause in this case being to drive every last Jew into the sea. The public perception resulting from this media confusion has become firmly one of "violence between the two," rather than one side trying to quell the religious-based hatred and violence of another. This is the same media that has taken Hamas's blanket statement of primitive hate and cloaked it in such concepts as political vengeance and tit-for-tat, creating complexity where there is none. The media's claims of "Hamas's revenge killings" give off the impression that such murders are in response to Israeli military action, which they're not. You imagine Hamas and Islamic Jihad getting equally irate with the media, demanding, "These suicide bombings are in response to Israelis being Jews, you idiots! Just read our damn Website!" But the media just doesn't get it, and so the average reader and viewer will soak up the stories and think, “Why don't those Israelis just end their occupation?”—the very lexicon Ashwari is instilling in her audience tonight.

Why would the media do this? you hear people asking. Seems a bit paranoid, something along the lines of a conspiracy theory, no? And it does, until you recall that only 60 years ago, the countries of Europe and much of the rest of the world, including Arab countries and the United States, turned their collective heads as the Germans burned, shot, starved, and gassed to death two out of three Jews on the European continent. You also recall that those in the 1930s who pointed in fear to the increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric, to the lies spreading about the Jewish people, to the creation of Jewish ghettos, were labeled paranoid. Accusations of paranoia are convenient means of discrediting the accuser and making him feel guilty. You know though that the more passionately you argue your case, the more biased and thus less trustworthy your views will appear. You cannot believe that what shouldn't require proving does in fact require it, and that your battle for truth has become political Chinese finger cuffs: the more you struggle, the less progress you make. You know that many people, certainly those who are pro-Palestinian, will see what you're doing as contorting this simple fight over land into a comparison between Jews and Arabs, and an insulting comparison at that. They'll also say your description of Arab anti-Semitism reflects one small part of the equation. But weren't the Arabs the ones who made this into the theo-cultural face-off that it is? And even if what you're saying is only one facet of the equation, you can't help but look at the visceral disgust exhibited for Jews, at the way Palestinians educate their youth in violence and intolerance, at the glorification of killing in the name of Allah. You look at this and think, how can anyone who is pro-Palestinian consider this remotely acceptable, even if it is only one small part? They will call your words propaganda and even hateful. But your malicious propaganda will consist of nothing more than shining a light on what the Palestinians themselves inundate their people with in the mosques, on state-run television, and at summer camp. They just won't want to listen. They would rather hold on to the naively idealistic belief that an entire culture simply cannot be largely driven by hate. The assumption that people are generally good, and the conclusion that this must therefore be a mere political battle over land, will persevere over the evidence blowing up in the public's face.

So what do you do when the world looks at the growing incidence of the desecration of Jewish cemeteries in Europe, the burning of synagogues, and attacks on Jewish children as unrelated to race or religion? And what of the political figures who do call these crimes what they are but say they are understandable responses to what's going on in Israel? You'll shrug to yourself and accept the truth—anti-Israel protests have become the politically correct expression of anti-Semitic sentiment that has been momentarily hiding in shame since the Holocaust. Occupation? Sure, whatever it takes to justify finishing the job.

Ashwari begins to wrap up the evening when you suddenly hear a frenzied chorus of screams coming from outside the building. Ashwari concludes her remarks and receives a standing ovation and you flow outdoors into the warm autumn night to see what's going on. You immediately make out two camps. One is pro-Israeli, and it is singing peace songs and holding a candlelight vigil. The other is pro-Palestinian, many of Arab descent, and it is hollering at its opposing group, holding various signs, the most disgusting of which equates Israelis with Nazis, an increasingly common depiction. Addressing the illogical affront such a sign represents would mean falling into their trap: If you dignify it with a retort, you lend credibility to the nonsense. And yet you know the comparison has already caught on, that people, relatively intelligent people, do in fact make that connection.

You feel a sudden rush of your inherited past wash over you and so you grab a flag of the young Jewish state and stand with the pro-Israelis. The pro-Palestinian group begins to encroach on the pro-Israeli protestors. On you. You see in their eyes a seething rage that conjures in you an unfamiliar fear and an accompanying strength. They move in closer, and you can see that it's quite simple: they want to fight. A pro-Israeli protestor finds a policeman and tells him to help and only then the officers form a barrier between you and your counterparts. The angry mob of pro-Palestinians proceeds to shout the standard Jewish obscenities so prevalent in the Arab world. They slowly push back the line of police officers, one of whom will be quoted in the papers tomorrow as stating the protestors were all "well-behaved."

A friend present that night, whose views are less formed than your own, will later tell you the only difference between the pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli camps was that the former was not as organized as the latter. And you wonder, Is that what some people see? Do they not witness the hate spilling out of the pro-Palestinians' hearts, the hope and restraint emanating from the pro-Israeli side? You know that even this could be twisted by claiming the former are the victims and are thus desperate and angry. But this desperation and anger existed before 1948. And that, ultimately, is the key here.

You look on at the anti-Jewish (not anti-Israel) banners, at the incitement, at the shoving. You listen to the growls for "death to the Jews" and chants that "Hitler should've finished the job." You shut your eyes and think of the long and tired history of persecution against Jews, the cultural and religious abuse going back centuries, today's young generation of Palestinian schoolchildren dressed up as suicide bombers yearning for martyrdom. And you know: This has nothing to do with land, nothing to do with those thin strips of desert along the eastern Mediterranean. The Palestinians, an extension of the Arab world, want the same thing they wanted before Israel became a nation. The rest—the "facts," the arguments, the land disputes, the checkpoints, the settlements, the curfews, the military patrols, the targeted killings of Hamas masterminds, the detainment of suspected terrorists, the humiliation, the poverty, the refugee camp crackdowns—is self-serving commentary. Anyone who genuinely believes that the Israelis fueled this monster with their military actions doesn't want to accept the truth—that this has nothing to do with land.

The tension dissipates, promising to return another night, and both groups of protestors eventually disperse. You walk away and overhear people chatting about this part of the evening or that part, the words "occupation" and "Jews" (not Israelis) littered carelessly about, and you think to yourself, if things ever get to the point where the public perception of Israel becomes so grossly distorted that it poses an imminent threat to the country's very survival, you'll write about this evening, not because you hope it will help, but because you'll have to. Because history will have come calling. Because this has nothing to do with land.


Kol hakavod, Daniel. Thank you.
The author can be reached at danielmstern@hotmail.com